Category Archives: Politics

AfroCubism – Benséma : Mali Song of the Week

Whatever the political and economic consequences of President Obama’s trip to Cuba this week, we’ve learnt a bit about him and the country he visited. We can also see that a whole lot hasn’t changed. Another thing that has evidentially remained unchanged – during that 20th Century “constant” of the Cold War conflict between the US and Cuba – is that the Caribbean nation remains enamoured, at every turn, with music. Scenes from a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays held yesterday morning show jubilation in the crowds whenever the band started up – which appeared to be every other minute. Rapturous and genuine applause even bloomed at the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner. Ahead of the game President Obama penned a short article explaining the significance and purpose of the match:

“That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken.”

This is of course must be framed as a uniquely American reflection on Cuba. Other countries, particular those in Africa, have not endorsed the isolationist policies of the US and remember different struggles. On the contrary Cuba has a rich history of cooperation in Africa where they attacked barriers from the same side. Nelson Mandela famously thanked Castro and the Cuban people for the “selfless” support received for the anti-apartheid movement. In many ways its was the “critical” intervention in the gradual and successful defeat of apartheid. Apartheid itself means  “the state of being apart” when translated from Afrikaans. To be anti-apartheid is to show a willingness to come together. In this case it was for the advancement of the rights and liberties of people from the other side of the world.

It is a difficult truth for the US to digest, no less for Noble Peace Prize winner Obama. In an incredible exchange that just about everybody should watch, Mandela during his visit to the US in 1990 was challenged by Ken Adelman from the Institute of Contemporary Studies for his praise of the human rights advocacy of Gaddafi, Arafat and Castro. In his response, Mandela alludes to the comparatively lack of support the US government ever showed the ANC, which barely extended beyond rhetoric, in its fight for human rights in South Africa. With his ‘normalising’ speeches and actions in Cuba over the last few days Obama is trying to work his magic on a particularly prickly legacy of his predecessors; that all too often American diplomacy has failed to bring the world together. Utilising sport to correct this is not a new Cold War trick and indeed its going to take a whole lot of ballgames to convince some commentators that the US’s actions against Cuba ought to be laid to rest.

Sport and culture facilitates all sorts of diplomatic relations, though not always positive I hasten to add. This is no different in Mali. Its relations with South Africa for example have been nurtured through two recent projects: 1) the crucial assistance Mali received from South Africa when its ability to host the African Cup of Nations in 2002 looked in doubt and 2) the on-going South African-led Timbuktu manuscript restoration and preservation project. With Cuba, Mali shares its music. Historically, Mali had some Cold War ties with Cuba, but over the last century its music has bound its people together more closely – even if many of them may not have known it.

Sadly, in researching this article I couldn’t find direct evidence of Malian and Cuban official relations being nurtured though musical connections, though I’m sure I would eventually. In a visit to the country last year, it is reported that (the source is from the Cuban Communist Party) President of the National Assembly of Mali, Issaka Sidibé, “thanked Cuban authorities for their cooperation with his country in various spheres, including health, sport and education”. Advancing cultural exchange was high on the agenda also. The musical harmony between the two countries is captured in this week’s Song of The Week. It hints at that unquantifiable, allusive and often dismissed quality, the very existence of it and its transformative powers Obama is banking will take hold in Cuba. Like sport music has a common language. A set of rules recognised nearly everywhere. Toumani Diabate – who features in this week’s SOTW – explained how during the AfroCubism project the various musicians from Mali, Cuba and elsewhere:

“…cannot even speak together on stage…music has created its own language. It’s the music message, and I think the message is true to the audiences [and] to the world also at the same time.”

It provides hope that separated peoples – by the Straights of Florida or the Atlantic Ocean, by education or simply by the passage of time – can find common intrinsically human pursuits to strip away the polluting effects of titles, labels, ignorance and othering. In its place there is always a chance for peace, happiness and cooperation. But just a chance.

 

AfroCubism – Benséma

 

Sam Garbett is Public Affairs Coordinator for the Mali Development Group – www.malidg.org.uk.

To get in touch with Sam for further information he’d be happy to hear from you at sam.garbett@malidg.org.uk. Any comments and ideas for improving the Hub are especially welcome. We all look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for tuning in.

The Mali Interest Hub is an initiative run by the Mali Development Group, supported by the Alliance for Mali.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Cheick Tidiane Seck – Fera Na Fere

It has been a long time since Cheick “The Keyboard Warrior” Seck made his way onto the Hub. Inspired by last week’s post about the ‘Festival Sur la Niger’, Ségou-born Cheick Tidiane Seck is making a fitting appearance. Seck is well known for his political beliefs and is especially outspoken on the issue of war and peace. These views are not confined to protesting against wars fought with guns and armoured vehicles however as they also extend to a range of issues including liberal globalisation. For Seck this outspoken attitude has not come with age as it is evident that his personality and political passions have long been a defining part of his character, earning him the nickname ‘Che Guevara’ in his early years.

As with Seck’s previous selection by the Hub, this week’s Song comes from his 2013 album ‘Guerrier’ (that’s “Warrior”, in French). There is a key, confusing, and ultimately troubling, reason for this. Over the last 9 months, since defeat in late May 2014, Malian’s have been dealing with the fallout from the Malian government’s failure to secure Kidal, a key northern-eastern town, from Tuareg rebel group MNLA. Frustration is mounting into violent outbursts again the UN Peacekeeping force MINUSMA, which has been authorised with the mission of stabilizing the country, re-establishing state authority and notably in expanding  “…its presence, including through long-range patrols and within its capacities, in the north of Mali beyond key population centres, notably in areas where civilians were at risk”. It is on this specific point in which government and international agencies appear to be having most difficulty.

As often happens in these moments of high-tension and conflict, some have decided to take matters into their own hands. This is a quite confusing and troubling development. According to a patchwork of reports, this has manifested in a new, also Tuareg, rebel group called GATIA. It appears that GATIA are a loyalist outfit, a “self-defence” militia made up of Malian army veterans and until recently has drawn no comment of condemnation or praise from Malian officials – despite its emergence in August last year. In what appears to be a very grim state of affairs the BBC reported the following:

Correspondents say there are strong suspicions that the government is increasingly relying on militia groups such as Gatia to strengthen its position against the MNLA in the north. A UN source told the AFP news agency that two bombers blew themselves up in the attack near Tabankort town while a third was killed before he could detonate himself.

It is the BBC’s use of the word ‘relying’ which is most troubling perhaps. Is the state of affairs so bleak, the government’s strength so shattered that they are willing to rely on the bloody, twisted, tit-for-tat battles of suicide bombers to win their war? Its a frightening prospect. One which the UN in an ever familiar role seems, at best, only able to spectate over. And with this news another vicious blow is dealt to that other prospect, throwing it long past the horizon again. That is, of course, the prospect of there being an end to the war in Mali.

 

 

Cheick Tidaine Seck – Fera Na Fere

President IBK – Year One by Jonathan Marriott

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has had a politically challenging first year in office. His personal popularity has slumped and any sign of recovery has stagnated. Photo credit: TVC News

The 12th of August was the first anniversary of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s landslide election victory, but any evidence on the streets of Bamako might have been hard to come by. Everywhere you look in the Malian press these past few weeks there are retrospectives on the last twelve months, but unlike this week one year ago, there won’t be much in the way of flag-waving, smiling faces and music. In response to a disappointing come-down from last year’s optimism, all are looking to “the worst president that Mali has ever had” for an answer – how did he get here? What has been done with all that hope? Options are still open to the former World Bank employee, but they require compromise and a willing attitude, both things he seems increasingly reluctant to give.

That IBK has disappointed and underwhelmed is uncontroversial on all sides; despite having brought all the necessary threads together to weave a stable and economically sound future in the run-up to his election, the country has continued to unravel. However he did it, IBK’s friends have grown more numbered, and the hope and feeling of solidarity that infused his campaign has dissipated. This time one year ago, the country was recovering from a war that saw its northern regions, collectively an area as large as France, overrun by al-Qaeda affiliated military organisations, forcing intervention from their old colonial masters, the French. But a year on, the government’s control over the north is flimsy and incomplete, and two weeks ago Keita signed a defence agreement with French President François Hollande that means French troops will stay in the country on a long-term basis. Peace talks with the comparatively moderate separatists the MNLA (Mouvement Nationale de Libération de l’Azawad) were first scheduled for this time last year, but still haven’t really happened yet. A stultifying inertia seems to have gripped the country’s governing body, as deadlines seem to slip by, opportunities for opening new discourse fall at the first hurdles, and movements towards inclusion and consolidation wither from inattention. Whilst the French are very much back in the country, raising questions of neo-colonialism, allegations of corruption and nepotism have begun to accumulate against IBK, and the much-discussed multi-billion euro EU aid has once again been halted. So much of that hope and euphoria you may have seen at his election has turned to set faces, subdued and gloomy criticism, frustrated voices and scandal. IBK is pretty much all that remains of his cabinet, the whole lot of them having resigned en masse in May this year.

His position is looking lonelier as he has managed to alienate so many of that almost incredibly long list of friends that propelled him into power in the first place, and yet he seems to approach issues with an air of complacency and inattention, which is frustrating his electorate. But though lonelier he may be, he is perhaps not all that uncomfortable: from the back of his brand new $1.4 million Rolls Royce perhaps the fortunes of Mali seem a bit less pressing, the voices of exasperation and calls for his resignation surely only heard mutedly. Or they would, if the luxury vehicle were ever to leave the exclusive Missabougou quarter of Bamako where it languishes in a garage. It has been seen as a symbolic portrayal of his lavishness and abdication of responsibility; the impoverished north whose rebellion created the circumstances for his election, and whose fate is intimately and (sadly) oppositely tied to that of any state in Mali, is almost entirely without paved road. Keita seems to have turned around and gone home, filling his cabinet and government with family members, and shunning open engagement with the electorate. As one commentator put it: “IBK has lost his tongue – that with which he used to shake heaven and earth to make himself heard. It is a silence which says much about his limitations faced with the hard reality of the exercise of power”.

Others have extolled the heroism of Soumailla Cissé, who on the day of IBK’s election visited his house to concede, before the votes were counted, pledging himself to help the new President to forge a better future for Mali. It was widely seen as an act of political heroism; he had fallen on his sword for the good of the country and to maintain its forward momentum, but Keita’s use of the mandate and support he was gifted during the turbulent months at the beginning of 2013 have drawn strong criticism. In an article on this website in November of last year, Sam Garbett presciently warned of the dangers of great expectations for Keita’s presidency, in particular mentioning Gordon Brown’s abject prime ministership in the UK. Prescient because, as frustrations have risen and Keita’s reputation for having a strong hand has waned, disappointment and gloom, that must surely give way to anger and rebellion, have spread.

But all is not lost. Peace talks with the MNLA (the Tuareg separatists unaffiliated with al-Qaeda) are still on the cards, if the political will is there to pursue them. A new dialogue, agreed upon among the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) on the 8th of June, has already seen the release of 30 prisoners from Kidal. It may be a crucial moment for Mali, amid frustration and growing distrust over the failed peace process, since a cease fire was broken in May. On the 26th of June at the African leaders’ summit, Ban-Ki Moon called for talks with the separatists in Mali beginning August 17, again providing some political pressure for a solution. Could a meeting of MNLA chiefs, much reported in April, yet bear fruit? The antagonisms between North and South seem hardly likely to disappear overnight. In April the new Prime Minister, Moussa Mara, declared outright war against the MNLA, In May 50 government troops were killed in a failed attempt to retake the MNLA-occupied town of Kidal, a fiasco for which Mara was widely criticised, and the foreign minister disappointed a UN securtiy council meeting by labelling them Terrorists, and showing little inclination to reach out to them. If the country is to be unified, steps need to be taken to welcome the Tuareg into the nation as equal citizens, and although precious little voluntarism from the politicians in charge is forthcoming, with pressure in the right places a new integrated Mali is still a possibility.

So where next for Mali? Further into the doldrums and authoritarianism? For now, the mood suggests a dim hope that given continued support, and given a political discourse absent from petty rivalries, partisan politics and personal ambitions, Mali may yet find its untapped potential under IBK. For the moment, however, the outlook is distinctly unappealing.

Jonathan Marriott

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Fatoumata Diawara – Clandestin

Fatoumata Diawara’s magic comes from her ability to create warm, tranquil music whilst still addressing very tough issues. In the case of ‘Clandestin’ the issue being addressed the that of Africa to Europe immigration, told from the perspective of an onlooker – of someone who stays behind, or has already set up a new life in Europe; both perspectives being ones that Diawara has had herself.

This is a huge topic in European politics, and has certainly brought about some appalling circumstances, which have been widely reported but this has not transposed into meaningful action. Boats ranging from the sturdy to the barely-afloat attempt to bridge the gap between the North African coastline and southern Europe, aiming in particular for Italy. The boats, horrifically overcrowded, frequently capsize, or run out of fuel, food and water. Thousands continue to die. Some rescue attempts are made by the coastguards and navies of Mediterranean European countries, however according to Human Rights Watch the focus is always on barring entry rather than saving lives. Such is the toxicity of immigration as a political issue in Europe today countries struggling economically have simply declared that they “cannot confront the crisis” as it arrives at its shores – instead calling on the United Nations to set up processing centres in Africa to manage the flow of people. Crises in West Africa, including Mali, Syria and as far a field as Somalia are all contributing to the growing numbers of African migrants willing to attempt the journey.

Diawara’s perspective is a vital contribution to this topic. Some coverage in Europe is given to explain why someone is forced to making the decision, but few have described the personal traumas as well as Diawara. “They are called ‘illegals,’ but I call them warriors as it’s not easy to leave everything behind and to trust in the unknown. In Bambara, we call them nomads,” says Diawara. “This song is dedicated to all the brothers who die on this trip and to those who have already left.”

The imagery of a warrior, or even nomad, encourages us to view each migrant as an individual – someone who has come to an independent decision, one heavily influenced by the enormous wreckage of poverty and war. From a European perspective to “leave everything” for an African appears slightly simplistically. Perhaps an overly focusing on conflict and poverty makes the issue a material one – literally what items someone leaves behind. However, Diawara speaks to them as “brothers” – they are individuals who have left a family, their country and everything they know, behind – a potentially fatal gamble for a future they know little about.  Again, “they put all their trust in the unknown”. A bitterly sorrowful situation to imagine. It provides a much firmer base for empathy towards the victims and understanding for those who have managed to continue their lives in Europe.


Fatoumata Diawara – Clandestin

New President, Old Problems: The early days of IBK’s regime

Men set up a stage for a campaign rally next to a poster for Malian presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) in Bamako, Mali, August 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney

Any newly elected executive has a difficult task ahead of them regardless of the events preceding their inauguration. For a President one opening matter is to get the right balance of characters into government and getting the country up and running. Style and the setting of priorities are incredibly important. A coherent, suitably ambitious and achievable agenda for power must be made. Get the pace wrong here and you can promise too much and deliver too little or you can end up picking the wrong fights and risk isolation. The early months of a new government can also fall victim to the reliance on the wave of euphoria that delivered them to power. Some forget that this honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end. If taken for granted, a newly installed premier can find that hope and excitement subsides into disappointment and frustration all too quickly. Just ask Gordon Brown how that feels…

So looking to Mali’s new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (fondly referred to as IBK for short) we can expect the stakes on the early weeks of government to be even higher. A daunting in-tray faces the run-away winner of this year’s elections. How has IBK tried to deliver his election-winning message of peace, unity and technical and administrative competence? Increasingly and ever important for any modern developing world President is external relations, but getting the balance between this and national stability and reconciliation is crucial. These two sides are intrinsically linked yet IBK has urgent issues to address on both fronts – how has he approached this, have some events already forced his hands, and what can we learn already?

Mali’s new cabinet

The first decision that faces any incoming Premier – in this case Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly – is the creation of a cabinet. This is a great way of anticipating the attitude of a government going forward. IBK has certainly made choices to deliver a symbolically unified government. Many of the key appointments are detailed in this article. The prestigious role of Foreign Minister has been handed to Zahaby Ould Sidy Mohamed, a Timbuktu-born Arab from the North who was a senior figure in a rebellion in the 1990s. One of his key tasks will be dealing with the United Nations and issues surrounding the already understaffed MINUSA Peacekeeping deployment picking up from the work of General Secretary Sekouba Cisse. Having an individual from the north represent Mali in this way on the world stage opens the door reconciliation with the north. Mali’s Foreign Minister will arguably be the most important portfolio for providing solutions to Mali’s most pressing needs. Firstly, Mali’s relationship with its West African neighbours will be crucial to the safe return of the thousands of refugees and restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. These countries will be vital to Mali’s economic recovery and in tackling trans-continental organised crime.  Looking further afield, the continued presence of French troops is a reminder of the importance of relations outside of Africa. The US is another key ally in this area as is the EU in the form of a major source of development aid. All in all, the decision to give this important role to a man from Mali’s north is a very encouraging act of trust indeed.

Potential international esteem has been gathered in the form of Boubou Cisse who has been made head of Mali’s Mining Ministry and Bouare Fily Sissoko the country’s new Finance Minister. Both Cisse and Sissoko have experience to draw on from their recent work at the World Bank as well as contacts to exploit. Sissoko is also one of four women in Mali’s 34 person strong Cabinet. Seeing women be given prominent roles is promising and perhaps deserves more credit – Mali has matched the number of women in David Cameron’s reshuffled cabinet of 27. An act of continuity comes with the appointment of Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga as Defence Minister who held the position under President Alpha Oumar Konare and the intriguing re-appointment of Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly and Transport Minister Abdoulaye Koumare. Both these men held these posts under the military junta who came to power through the coup in 2012 and their inclusion would hopefully have the positive effect of appeasing or even bring the disgruntled elements of the military on-side. However, their presence in government could be questioned on the grounds of legitimacy – are these men here on merit – as argued here – or as a result of the coup have they effectively made their way into Mali’s political class by force?

Managing prevailing instability

On paper this cabinet shows the breadth and depth of character and experience to deliver on IBK’s promises.  There is a theme of inclusivity and a good mixture of old and new faces. Their arrival however has not coincided with the timely arrival of a stable and peaceful Mali. The towns of Gao and Kidal in the north-east of the country continue to be the centre of a very precarious security situation. On the 7th of October, in the first attacks in several months, the rebel group Mujao have claimed the life of a Malian soldier after he sustained fatal injuries from rocket fire. At the same time the city of Kidal has only very recently been brought under government control. It recapture was not an easy task for government forces who mounted their assault just before peace talks with the MNLA were due to begin. The decision to pursue the MNLA aggressively at this time seems ill-judged and disjointed and has now placed further strain on negotiations.

Kidal City (almost) open. Source:  Jeune Afrique

The armed groups in the north appear to be in retreat. Contrary to this more optimistic assessment a terrifying document has emerged. An 80 page “Islamist road map” that written around 12 months ago has been discovered. It is thought that the document was prepared for al-Qaeda. Its contents could explain the change in the strategy of al-Qaeda and other armed groups in northern Mali. It reveals a significant rift occurred midway through last year’s insurgency and confirms that some figures within the rebel networks correctly predicted the problem of insurgency over-reach. They claimed that the ambition to make a charge for Bamako would inevitably lead to the involvement of international forces. As a result, the prospect of military defeat became a far more likely outcome. A rush to Bamako would spell disaster for the wider objectives al-Qaeda had for the Sahel and was an unnecessary risk. These individuals were right. In light of the rebels failure to advance south the recommendations of the 80 page document may have only been heeded now. Is AQIM defeated or in a tactical retreat?

Crucially, this document details how al-Qaeda must not rely on the military capacity of its insurgents. Instead it must emerge newly configured with the intention of implementing Sharia law slowly to earn the trust of locals. Is al-Qaeda regrouping, rethinking and slowly re-emerging in Northern Mali? If this is being pursued it would bring the improving security situation into dispute. Indeed, at the end of September more than a dozen people “were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack in a Malian army camp in the city of Timbuktu”. The likely aim of this horrendous act of terror attack was to crush the confidence of the Malian people, destabilise the morale of the army itself and tarnish the army as a symbol of government stability – right in the heart of Mali’s northern territories. Al-Qaeda has resorted to a fight for hearts and minds – not territory. It would be beneficial to them to make peace talks look like a government failure.

This is not a time for IBK to be drawn into a false sense of security. Was cutting his trip to France short a wise move? Probably, but in returning home does IBK look like he is buckling to Al-Qaeda pressure? Or does he come across as a man who knows that his country needs him most of all in the support of domestic peace negotiations? It’s an archetypal rock and a hard place situation.

No time to be complacent

The instability is not only a rebel-induced situation in the north, but civic tensions prevail across the country Bamako included.  Al-Qaeda and the rest of the loosely-affiliated patchwork of rebel groups still active in the Sahel appear to be making a new war of hearts and minds. IBK and the new government must take forward the principle of unity and inclusivity symbolised in their own ranks and make it a reality on the ground.  IBK has looked unflustered through-out his opening months as President. Is this professionalism or complacency? He maintains a calming presence by citing the virtues of the UN and MINUSA and by displaying the support he has from his army. At the same time, it is worth remembering that for last decade Mali has been regarded as a democratic example for the whole of Africa to follow. This view has been dramatically revised over the past months. Criticism has been levelled at the West for insisting on a narrow notion of democracy in their assessment of the country. However “it was the pre-coup status quo that led to collapse”. It appears that for IBK – as for any government – there is an urgent need to continue the strong, symbolic start and to deliver on election pledges swiftly. We will have to see whether IBK’s approach is evidence of a firm hand or “impotence” in the face of Mali’s ongoing security dilemma.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Les Sofas de la République – Aw Ya to An Ka Lafia

So far the Mali Track of the Week has been generally selected from a bluesy artist which has achieved particular recognition in the Western world. This week’s entry hopes to shake this up a little.

Hip-hop or Rap music is arguably the most revolutionary and influential addition to the art form to arise in the last 30 years. Its distinctive sound is delivered inseparably to its unique cultural and political perspectives. In the 1990s and 2000s hip-hop became a global change-making powerhouse which has left no stone unturned. Its power as a vehicle for societal change emphasised most strikingly by Jay-Z’s inclusion in Time Magazine’s world-wide list of the 100 most influential people of 2013. Note that unlike in other years where a rapper has been listed under ‘artists’, Jay-Z had broken through, listed under the emphatic title of ‘Titan’ in an article written by the Mayor of New York City.

Rap music has been on the scene in Mali since the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, hip-hop’s strengths in articulating grievance, injustice, marginalisation but also hope, loyalty and determination has found many followers. One example of which is this week’s track from Les Sofas de la République.

Les Sofas get their name from the warriors of Samory Touré – one of Africa’s great king’s who during the 19th century fought for African freedom and fiercely resisted French imperialism. They are a collective of musicians who have a very active and engaged history as shown in this fascinating article. Andy Morgan writes of the group who formed the day after Captain Sanogo’s military coup of March 22nd 2012 in his book Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali:

‘Les Sofas aren’t your classic ‘band’ as such, think of them more as a rap posse, a self-help association, a pressure group, a political party, an educational charity and a think tank, all rolled into one.’

Les Sofas’s song ‘Aw Ya to An Ka Lafia’ (which translates as ‘Leave Us In Peace!’) was also created in reaction to a deeply troubling and violent political development. The song was released following an attack on May 21st 2012 on the Presidential Palace in Bamako by – in Morgan’s words – ‘a mob of protesters stirred up by Sanogo and opposition parties’. Morgan notes the song’s potent lyrics and how Les Sofas use the song to describe their mood, and the mood of many other Malians, following the attack; that all that was precious in their country and that was good about their politics had been lost to a violent and aloof struggle for power:

“Taking up arms Malians, fiercer and fiercer yeaah. Taking up arms and making blood flow yeaah. Making tears flow and making us lose time, bothering us with stupid details…Our relatives are dying up in the north while we try and agree on who will take the tiller.”

Powerful and provocative. Thought-provoking and fearless; doing what hip-hop does best.

 

Les Sofas de la République – Aw Ya to An Ka Lafia

The most important tweet in Mali’s history?

tweet

At 2:44pm on the 12th of August 2013, Soumaila Cissé sent arguably the most important tweet in Mali’s history. As the defeated candidate in Mali’s run-off Presidential election, he summarised in no less than 113 characters the strong, positive spirit that his country had expressed over the election period. Though the UN has reported that the second-round of elections occurred ‘without major incident,’ the jury should still be out till all data has been processed whether the logistical fears surrounding the elections materialised. It does appear that the greatest criticisms cited about these early elections – namely reprisal violence – have not occurred. As the BBC’s man in Bamako, Abdourahmane Dia, writes:

Mali seems to be headed towards a peaceful end of its electoral process after Soumaila Cisse conceded to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita following Sunday’s run-off vote.

This is yet another example that politics is not an exact science -many had predicted chaos if Mali held elections so soon. France, anxious to get its troops out of Mali after routing Islamist militants from northern regions earlier this year, faced criticism for pushing for early polls.

Yet the electoral success lies more with the Malian people, who firmly believed the polls would end an era of turmoil.”

Though it is correct that these elections have occurred “without major incident” the difficulties and trauma experienced by some who were simply trying to cast your vote cannot be forgotten. It has been reported that individual Malian’s have been frequently intimidated and sometimes killed trying to vote. A chilling reminder to anyone reading from the Western world of awfully underappreciated our democratic rights sometime appear.

Importantly for Malian’s, Cissé rounded off his most gracious of election defeats with a vow to create a strong and credible opposition. Malian television showed images of Soumaila Cissé going with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home. The whole end to the election process was a national occasion. “Soumaila’s conduct was truly impeccable,” said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. “It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us.” Another man interviewed in the street said “I was moved to tears when I heard of what Soumaila had done. He has freed this country from any problems.” Despite all his humility, it is worth mentioning that Cissé still cited some concerns over voting fraud.

With all the news about Soumaila Cissé, it is important to remember that Mali has a new President with plenty of work to do. There is plenty of information about Ibrahim Keita on the internet. The challenges sitting in his overflowing and newly acquired in-tray are enormous. The Huffington Post immediately centres Keita’s premiership on the issue of the Tuareg while The Guardian emphasises the difficulties in reigniting the economy and managing the flow of international aid after years of endemic mismanagement. If these elections are really meant to serve as a new chapter for Mali, and putting the turmoil behind, then politics and governance must start now. Cissé appears to already begun his job. Now we will have to wait and see what IBK’s plans to do first to take his country forward.

How much can these elections put a line under Mali’s troubles? Another tweet offers a more measured and reflective point. Freelance journalist Peter Tinti aptly points out that though the elections serve as a crucial first step it is important to “keep in mind” that Mali’s problems of the last 20 years have not come from the lack of free and fair elections. The greater challenge that awaits Mali’s new incumbents – and opposition – is to resume the mission of building strong institutions. Though elections have evidently been successful in beginning national reconciliation, Mali needs to expand its democratic credentials and not rely purely on the existence of ballot boxes. It is a promising start, but a lot still needs to be done.

Indeed these successful elections are more cause for ’a collective sigh of relief’ rather than celebrations in the streets.

Peacekeeping and Elections: logistics reveal flaws of both

#Photo Peacekeepers put on new blue berets marking start of #UN Mission in #Mali @UN_MINUSMA http://ow.ly/mych9 pic.twitter.com/F5wrCAvoXQ – Courtesy of @unpeacekeeping

Mali’s economy had been torn to pieces over the last months. Economic growth figures indicated a 1.2% contraction for 2012 – the first contraction since 2001. This is despite “a good agricultural season” and steady revenues from gold extraction which are thought to have helped buffer Mali against even further economic woe.

Conflicts are inherently tumultuous but life simply has to continue. Where it cannot, it flees. People still need to find food, barter for materials, find shelter and fuel. War and violence in does not only destroy economic activity but in can also warp it; corrupting conventional channels of trade and commerce and therefore creates new opportunities for illicit and sinister ways of generating wealth. Mali has seen thousands lose their livelihoods. Though in the security void and amongst the chaos organised crime and drugs trafficking – its primary source of finance – has thrived.

Conflict-hit economies must be understood to have winners as much as they produce losers. It is with this in mind that the issue of peacekeeping must be approached. Why? Only recently has the United Nations been made aware of the enormous economic impact the deployment of a peacekeeping force has. By simply being deployed in Mali, the 12,600 strong UN Peacekeeping force – called MINSUMA – that has just arrived is already interacting and influencing Malian economics.

Peacekeeping soldiers and their support staff are usually paid enormous salaries compared to the average citizen of a country they operate in. Also the UN’s expenditure on associated services like offices, mechanics and accommodation represent an enormous injection for the local economy. The UN’s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous stated earlier this month that Mali represented “unique challenges” due to its ravaged infrastructure. The arrival of a Peacekeeping force can be massive for small economies, and change them forever. For example, in the case of the UN Peacekeeping forces that were deployed in Timor-Leste (UNTAET), Liberia (UNMIL), Kosovo (UNMIK) and Burundi (ONUB) mission expenditure in the local economy accounted for up to and over 6% of the host country’s entire Gross Domestic Product. To put that into perspective: all the expenditure on education in the UK public and private – including student subsidies – is only 5.6% of Britain’s total GDP. For Mali the arrival of a peacekeeping mission may not only mean security, but prosperity.

Mali’s economy certainly needs a boost. This article reminds us of the continuing devastation in the country. However, Peacekeeping money can be dangerous, especially when we remember that in a conflict economy illicit and sinister forces are usually better placed to exploit new opportunities. The Peacekeeping force has already gained some recognition for its ability to negotiate access with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in some remote northern territories to provide a safe environment for brave Malians to come out and vote.

A #Mali refugee proudly shows his NINA card, a biometric ID doc to vote in #elections http://twitpic.com/d53v8v by @HeleneCaux – Courtesy of @refugees

However, like the Presidential elections, the current Peacekeeping operation can be equally criticised for having a regional bias. In Bamako the election looked like an election – campaign rallies and billboards. In the north, however, 500,000 Malians remain displaced. Some feel that the impact of Ramadan, especially in the sparsely populated north, has not been fully considered. It has been suggested that Malian authorities were under intense pressure to have early elections by western donor countries (that have constitutional requirements surrounding the need for elections that blocks aid payments) which meant that national voting cards were only sent out a month before the date of election – a huge administrative challenge. A good audio interview weighing up the difficulties of holding the Malian elections is available here. There is nothing to suggest that the impacts and benefits of a peacekeeping operation will not fall victim to similar bias. Even worse, in a case like Mali – where the conflict contained historic grievences about regional political and economic inequality – a poorly managed peacekeeping mission logistically could do more harm than good.

This has happened before. Benedikt Korf argues in reference to Sri Lanka that the benefits of UN interventions are usually overwhelmingly confined to the capital city. Theoretically, there are many instances whereby unintended outcomes of peacekeeping could foster, rather than diminish, the root causes for the original conflict. In the case of Sierra Leone over ninety percent of the socio-economic benefits were thought to have been confined to Freetown. This pattern was reported in other UN missions. In Burundi the UN handed out more contracts to Tutsis than Hutus. Conflict in Burundi, and neighbouring Rwanda, has revolved around the rivalry between the Tutsi and Hutu. The view that produced this conflict was partly built on the perception that the Tutsi have earned their socio-economic dominance through favouritism from external actors, from colonial times to present day. The resonance of the favouritism displayed by the UN could easily become propaganda in renewed tensions. Carnahan explains that in this instance the Tutsi show a greater ability to navigate the UN bureaucracy and therefore can better obtain contracts. Nothing sinister, but the UN possibly is not always aware of its impact on recurring historic grievances and economic divisions that have led violence in the past.

UN peacekeeping is a very fine art and incredibly difficult to get right. Regrettably, corruption within peacekeeping missions has also been a problem historically. Provision of poorly trained troops has resulted in terrible and inhumane practice, arguably the worst example of which being the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mineral exploitation in the DRC provides a perfect example of a conflict economy. The exploitation of gold and other minerals in the DRC has been the way to raise funds for rebels to pay their troops and obtaining weapons. The case of the DRC shows the most abhorrent example of peacekeepers not only contributing to the economic aspects of political violence, but become an embedded aspect within it. Pakistani peacekeeping troops abused their position to establish a network of gold trading with some of the militia groups they were supposed to be suppressing and demobilising. Some Pakistani peacekeepers participated in handing back weapons to militias they had demobilised in exchange for gold and access to the mines rich in precious metals and minerals. The scheme resulted in multiple million-dollar deals networked out of the DRC through corrupt military personnel.

Mansa Musa – Whose Malian gold destablised Egypt’s economy in the C13 as he undertook the Hajj – courtesy of @StevieThunder

The obvious link to be made here is to the gold extraction activities that are currently crucial to the economic success of Mali. Though no foul play has been reported yet, at a recent talk at the London School of Economics, Dr Kwesi Aning stated his fears that because of a diplomatic spat between ECOWAS and the UNSC in the run up to deployment of MINUSWA African armies will not be keen to supply their best trained troops. Dr Aning believes that radicalisation and corruption will be more of a likely threat to the mission’s objectives as a result. Indeed, the African contributions to MINUSWA took a knock this month upon Nigeria’s announcement that it is withdrawing 1,200 troops to fight its own insurgency problems at home.

It is certain that restoring security will remain the central objective to Mali’s peacekeepers for some time to come, regardless of the strength of the incoming President – whoever that is. In addition to security, the MINUSWA must recognise the other responsibilities is has to Malian society. A well-maintained and sophisticated peacekeeping force is vital to Mali’s recovery. Until we can be sure that this force is structured and is receptive in a way that other missions have not been previously it is a serious concern that the presence of MINUSWA could easily fall victim to the flaws that have plagued its predecessors.

Mali’s resilience part 3: Elders to Elders

Malians register for the elections. Courtesy of @newsafrican

We are entering a significant transition period for the nature of the emergency in Mali. The blue helmets and fresh Presidential elections are on the way. For months, the supposed ‘fractured’ remnants of the Islamist rebels have been terribly busy recruiting and recalibrating for a new period of the conflict. The landmine is now a heavily prevalent feature of the Islamist arsenal showing that their confidence in frontier combat has dissipated, yet their presence in the country and region is still daunting.

Timbuktu lies in ruins. The city acts as the economic engine for northern Mali and without it the whole region is in deep peril. Thousands of skilled farmers, carpenters, masons, traders, business operators have departed in the last 12 months and food security, livelihoods and any attempt of reconstruction has left with them. French news agency IRIN has produced a series of videos that each gives a glimpse of the situation in the city from a different group’s perspective.

With great sadness this guardian report describes how Timbuktu’s “social fabric” – so important to its resilience – has been virtually “destroyed” by the conflict and the grand economic and humanitarian exodus of the past year. So the crisis of Timbuktu and northern Mali is not only one of materials but also one encapsulated by an ebbing sense of hope.

The resilience of Mali that has been described in previoussegments is under threat. What can be done? In this final instalment we look at the factors that are undermining typical Malian resilience which is embedded in the social networks between families, unique religious institutions and elders. In particular, what can TheElders of international conflict resolution do to help?

The Elders. Courtesy of @TheElders

For a full explanation of what or – more accurately – who “The Elders” are then who better to ask than themselves? Their goals, attitude and membership are laid out quite broadly in this two and a half minute video. The Elders are a unique organisation quite simply because there is only one Nelson Mandela, Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt or Graça Machel in the world. The Red Cross, Save the Children, Action Aid, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all have overlapping competences, expertise, resources, aims, areas of operation and members. These Elders are the only ones, a majestic club, which can only realistically intervene in a select number of issues. Here lies their power and potential. As President Carter explains:

“Where we feel a vacuum in the world, where there’s a need that can be filled by us uniquely, that’s when we decide to take on an issue.”

When The Elders “take on an issue” they are in it for the long term. The crises on the Korean Peninsula, in the Sudan, in Sri Lanka or the Cote D’Ivoire rarely make the headlines but The Elders are there plugging away. The continued work and focus of their small London-based team keeps the names of these humanitarian crises echoing around the halls and corridors of power and have done for years. From engaging the world’s youth and tackling unemployment to working towards equality and justice for the world’s women and girls.

In a way, focus is the key word here. The Elders appear to be an all or nothing organization. When they get involved they drill their support and really encourage debate and cooperation. This is the organization’s real strength. The Elders are not here to photo-bomb international conferences before jetting off to the field to chat with some peacekeepers. They maintain a continued presence and tackle issues at the root for as long as they need.

This can have limitations of course. There are those unfortunate enough not to have had their issue “taken on”. A quick use of the search engine on The Elder’s website can reveal plenty. Equally, Mali is not currently listed under the Elder’s page entitled ‘Our Work’. This of course does not mean individual Elders are not working tirelessly to help bring peace to Mali. It is merely a result of the Elders acting strategically; only lending their independent, door-opening, campaign focusing, and connective work when they feel that there is a unique advantage.

Does Mali have a unique need for this style of support? How does the work of The Elders fit into what we have already learnt about Mali’s resilience?

Malian refugees are recieveing help, but are vulnerable to the political instability. Photo courtesy of @MP_Boyce

An interesting place to start to answer these questions is with comments made by MSF emergency coordinator Henry Gray. Speaking on the refugee situation in MSF’s magazine Dispatches he clearly identifies a limitation to his own work. MSF are doing a fantastic job in trying to feed and shelter the thousands of Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, but “until there’s a political solution and they feel safe, they won’t go home”. These refugees are the same valuable, yet vulnerable, members of Malian society that fled from northern Mali leaving civil life in ruins. The material aspect of Mali’s problems is not the key to resolution in this conflict. On this point, The Elders are not equipped with the logistical and humanitarian resources of say the United Nations or the European Union, nor need they be. Indeed, their views usually receive audience in both these organizations and can no doubt have sway on the allocation of resources. But the most important contribution The Elders can make is galvanizing political reconciliation. In Mali, honesty can only be fostered by independent bodies, but preferably from non-governmental outsiders too to avoid colonial connotations. What is rare about The Elders is that its membership is a microcosm of the globe. As the rhetoric of ‘the war on terror’ creeps ever further into the Mali conflict resolution lexicon, it would be useful to have an organization that cannot easily be aligned to a ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ perspective present somewhere along the road to recovery. As discussed in the previous segment, the success of post-conflict reconciliation strategies strongly depend on the perceived legitimacy of those carrying it out. The Elders, so cherished globally, are possibly the best placed individuals to ensure that this legitimacy is realized and keep whatever processes that are initiated in check.

Most importantly, what of Mali’s torn social fabric? This series will finish by illustrating the role international coordination has to play in rebuilding Mali. As of Wednesday the 15th of May a huge amount of suspended aid was re-engaged and began to flow back into the country. Interestingly, the reinvigoration of donor cash was greeted with a strange mixture of high anticipation and wracked nerves. Any increase in the flow of aid to the troubled areas of the world can generally be regarded as positive news. However, an Oxfam report published straight after called on an increasing amount of aid to be set aside for ‘civil society’ – calling on donors to ‘re-evaluate’ where their support was directed. Though not stated explicitly, Oxfam have raise suspicions about the integrity of the current support for the Malian government and its ability to govern effectively outside of Bamako. Similarly, the report is strikingly restrained, continually calling on aid that ‘does no harm’ indicating that fears remain that the Malian authorities and formal distribution systems remain infiltrated, troubled and ineffective. Ploughing money into them – and nowhere else – could just exacerbate things further. The report points out that for the past decade absolute poverty in Mali has risen, even before the conflict set in. As the title of the report explains, it is time for a ‘new development contract’ in Mali.

Could Mali’s networks of elders and trusted families combined with international co-ordination by the likes of The Elders hold a potentially unrealized asset in the fight to restore peace to Mali? There is every reason to believe so. The factor that will determine the future stability of Mali is if the international community can be brave enough to try and unlock and support Mali’s hidden assets. Oxfam’s concept of a ‘new development contract’ resonates well. However, with all new contracts one must be certain that its signatories are the legitimate representatives of the people it claims to act to the benefit of. At present, there are many reasons to be sceptical of the government to be suitable in this regard, and plenty of reasons to look to Mali’s traditional networks as the alternative.

Mali untapped resource: it’s resilience – part 2

Mali’s society is equipped with assets that can help it on its road to peace and stability. What will prove difficult is marrying these with the modern, well-resourced, externally controlled conflict resolution techniques being implemented at present without spoiling them forever.

In the last article, it was set out that the local families in Mali’s city of Timbuktu – when organised around traditional values – can be mobilised to perform extraordinary tasks. It is the purpose of this next entry to decipher how this network functions and whether it really harbours any greater potential in creating peace.

A Dogon elder, courtesy of @hassan_wanini

Now, it is hard to describe the utility of these systems of mobilization and capacity building in conventional terms. On the whole it feels slightly odd to describe the relationship between Mali’s families, hierarchy, religion and traditions as “systems” in the first place. However, it is equally important not to over-romanticise “traditional” Mali. In any case, describing them should merely be seen as a step in understanding them and their potential role in stabilising Mali.

One way that has become useful in describing these is through the term “African Indigenous Knowledge Systems” or AIKSs for short. These are systems that do not necessarily originate from the formal structures of the state and are usually orientated around institutions and figures of distinctive cultural significance. Professor Fred Ben-Mensah explains that AIKSs can overcome the fact that:

Modern conflict resolution principles and methods are generally not continuations or adaptations of those of its indigenous populations. There is a perceived gap or “disconnect” between modern and indigenous conflict resolution philosophies and practices.”

Therefore, Ben-Mensah argues that;

Chances for peaceful resolution of Africa’s conflicts can be enhanced considerably if the region’s indigenous principles, skills, and methods of conflict resolution are understood and harmonized with those of the modern nation-state.”

Mali is no stranger to the successes that can be achieved if the indigenous and modern can be developed simultaneously. AIKSs in Mali have been used to integrate indigenous knowledge into approaches to reversing desertification and in agricultural management. This has produced a world-leading case study. Other areas AIKS have been realised are in child literacy and maternal health. Peter Easton writes in October 2000 of the successes he saw:

The traditional African social structure, which assigns deliberative roles to the elders, management tasks to the householders and technical ones to the young people in a manner meant to be synergistic and complementary; and from participatory action research, which entails organizing learning around the tasks required to solve a problem.”

In Mali’s hour of need, it is now time to realize the potential of Mali’s elders, religious teaching and family structures in the capacity of conflict resolution, statebuilding, and contributing to the healing of Mali’s battered national consciousness. It is not suggested here that “indigenous” and “modern” are at opposing ends of a spectrum. The point being made here is that there is an over reliance on material, industrialised, and militarised methods of conflict resolution. This approach has been promoted by the world’s most powerful states and organisations in a way that leaves local and domestic potential unrealised.

It is time this was changed. Outlined below are three cases where the skills, methods and principles of Mali’s elders and unique societal ‘systems’ can contribute to stabilisation and peace.

Mali’s Islam. Courtesy of @PCCLofficial
  1. Reclaiming Islam

Traditionally, and up to the beginning of the conflict last year, it would have been entirely accurate to describe the Islam of Mali as tolerant and pluralistic. But things changed in the run up to the current instability. In a fantastic report, Reliefweb note that over the last few decades there has been an increase in the construction of new mosques occupied by marabouts – religious teachers – who have been studying in Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries. The Sunni Islam they have learned about in their studies and their comparative wealth to pre-existing religious organisations has not been seen as a problem until now. But during the last 15 months, with increasing Islamist occupation of northern Mali, some of these marabouts suddenly presented themselves as new religious leaders and were even said to have taken part in the fighting.

There has been some response to this showing the pluralism of traditional Malian society. For example, in September 2012 the organising of a conference of ulemas by religious leaders who were members of Mali’s High Council of Islam resulted in the issuing of a clarification document in the form of a “memorandum” calling on Muslims in Mali to follow a tolerant and peaceful Islam anchored in the social values of the country.

At the time of the French intervention The High Council of Islam also presented its position on national television stating that the intervention is not directed against Islam, but rather aims to defend Mali’s territorial integrity and stop the progress of allied terrorist groups into the south of the country. This action was said “to calm parts of the population who were afraid of the religious developments taking place in the country”.

Mali’s religious institutions have acted with a sense of national responsibility in the cases above. These must be supported in reclaiming something that is rightfully theirs; their religious tolerance. It is argued here that a measure of peace, security and freedom can be achieved by supporting systems that are already in existence. As a result, Mali can begin to rely less on a War on Terror, Counter-Insurgency or the various other heavy-duty foreign policy techniques.

Transitional justice. Courtesy of @maliactu
  1. Adding legitimacy to the reconciliation process

As is the norm for international crises, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been drafted in to investigate allegations of war crimes that have occurred. Its focus on these crimes is encouraging but the ICC has had serious problems in getting its work done in the past. A key issue is legitimacy – can justice be served by any group other than the peoples that the injustices were directed towards? The situation in Mali remains muddled, but from other cases in the ICC’s history points towards the idea that without the involvement of local actors, all sense of legitimacy is lost. The internationalized aspect of Malian conflict has the potential to removes legitimacy from reconciliation processes.

Looking to history, this is exactly what happened in Rwanda and Kosovo. Dominik Zaum compares the administration of transitional justice in Rwanda and Kosovo. In both cases he notes that the international criminal tribunals suffered endemic problems of efficacy and legitimacy compared to their poorly funded local counterparts. His conclusions suggest that the ICC does not learn lessons from one region to the next and therefore:

… [it] leaves one sceptical about the claim [that formal justice systems are] a condition for successful peace- and state-building’

In reference to the perception of the Rwandan people in particular he notes that they have:

…generally seen international justice as an expensive irrelevance’

What has changed that will prevent the same happening in Mali?

It becomes a quite philosophical problem. What the Western states of the world have to appreciate is that a very specific legalistic approach to justice is a product of how our society has evolved. These methods must be seen to have limitations in contexts outside of the historical circumstances that they were produced by. Restorative justice has to be framed in terms that resonate with the society in hand.

Equally, the type and terms of retribution handed out by the ICC may not be considered sufficient, legitimate, or relevant by the local population. The support that the West can give though is helping to promote successful cases and nurturing a sense of best practice in terms of due-process and upholding human rights. Ben-Mensah highlights that national judicial systems in Africa recognize the existence of traditional conflict resolution systems for their relative competence in matters of local traditions and customs. Some countries have even incorporated them into the national statute. A similar relationship must be nurtured in the way the conflict is handled in Mali, and the network of elder families, their values and history provides a basis to work with.

Malian elections loom. Courtesy of @Maliactu
  1. Restore some distance between the international community and the incumbent regime.

We are now over one year on since the coup d’etat in March 2012. It is important to reflect on how the international community originally responded to the armed struggled for control of Mali’s governance. Comments from prominent regional and international figures went like so:

  • President of the African Union commission, Jean Ping: “We no longer accept coup d’états”

  • ECOWAS, (the Economic Community of West African States): “strongly condemns the misguided actions of the mutineers”

  • Chief of European Union foreign policy Catherine Ashton condemned the “apparent coup” and called for “democratic elections as soon as possible”.

Now, the Malian government has grown into a legitimate partner to the point where a huge amount of suspended aid has begun flowing back in from the developed world and large NGOs. It appears that a certain amount of trust has developed – or the sense of alarm has ebbed – and the government is seen to be an acceptable working partner. The government is operating with an air of “stateliness” despite huge issues that remain concerning the intentions, integrity and competence of the regime, particularly upon the topic of the inequalities between the North and South of the country and the management of upcoming elections.

Though elections have been organized and therefore the incumbent government it generally perceived as temporary, its legitimacy has become enhanced by France’s decision to respond to its calls for intervention and the way the Malian government has conducted itself internationally.

Simply put, it is increasingly conducting itself and being treated like a normal government. By concentrating on supporting the capacity and resilience on Mali’s elders concurrently with that of the government it creates a strong civil society that can put pressure on the government, “check” its power, and generally make it clear that the incumbent regime – like any in a pluralist and democratic society – should never make itself too comfortable.

*** 

To begin to implement any of the above would be an astonishing undertaking. Mali is not alone in requiring a change of approach to conflict resolution. Has the world already begun to think differently about the role of ‘the local’ in promoting peace? In the third and final entry on the resilience of Mali’s local population, we will look at how this set of elders can be supported in their endeavours by another, quite different, set of “Elders”…